This story begs to be told (and in this context begging was almost required), even though there are groceries waiting to be put away (and the fact that there are groceries at all is a miracle in this story), and the added facts that I still have an hour of German homework calling out to be finished and I ran a hard 45 minute run tonight and my dinner is burning on the stove and it's now 9:55 pm and I've had exactly one meal today. All that going on and I still feel the burning necessity of telling this story so others of you might be saved the humiliation of stumbling into the minefield of good credit vs. one tiny (seemingly harmless) mishap.
Where to start? Well, let's start with the financial details--namely mine. I like to keep things simple. I have one debit card and one credit card. For the past several years that has seemed ample enough. I can easily track things and don't have to weed through mountains of monthly credit card statements. In Freetown, business was conducted on a strictly cash basis, so I used my antiquated check book to write a check for cash every few weeks and paid for everything in cash. If I wanted to buy something online, I used my handy-dandy debit card. I hardly ever used my credit card and that significant fact will play a huge part later in this saga. A few more details--I have good credit; my credit card currently has a zero balance and a fairly high credit limit. My checking account is healthy too and by that I mean it usually has a couple of zeros to the left of the decimal point. My financial portfolio was not always this rosy, but I have worked hard over the past few years to get things in shape and I'm proud of that.
Next up is the silly little mishap. I was taking a friend to the airport and we were in a bit of a rush. As I was getting the cash out of the machine with my debit card and simultaneously checking the departure schedule, I haphazardly forgot my debit card in the machine. I have never done that before and I have been banking since before most of you reading this story were probably born. By the time the flight left and I realized my mistake, of course my card was long gone. I dutifully called my bank to report the lost card and they informed me that they would happily mail me a new card in "7-10 business days" along with the PIN code another "five days later." Geez, I thought, what am I going to live on until then? How am I going to get money? I knew I had about $25 dollars cash in my wallet and that certainly would not last for 10 days. Then, eureka, I remembered my long lost credit card. Surely that could help me out in the interim.
I breathed a sigh of relief, merrily dusted off my long-forgotten credit card and tested it out at a few places around town. I didn't make any large purchases--just a movie ticket, some juice at CVS, and drinks with my old manager. When I tried to refill my Metro subway pass very late last night, the machine didn't seem to like my card, but I chalked that up to a fickle subway machine and didn't give it another thought.
Today, I stayed home all day diligently doing my German homework until I talked myself into going for a 45 minute run. I have had too many days off from running lately (and frankly too many donuts and whipped cream lattes) and so running was a huge effort. I was assigned to bring snacks to my German class tomorrow so I decided to combine running with a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I don't have a car in DC, as is the case for most foreign service officers between assignments. My Africa car stayed in Africa and I will most likely buy another car when I get to Germany. In the six month interim, I'm car-less. The grocery store is on the way home from running so it saves me a few steps. I got all the groceries and I was looking forward to going home and eating a late dinner. Then all hell broke loose.
Hell breaking loose looks something like this: You are standing in line at the check out counter in sweaty running clothes after a hard run and you hand your credit card to the clerk and after she runs it through the machine she says, "Your card is declined." In my story, I am completely stunned so I ask her to try the card again, since I know full well that there is plenty of credit on my card to purchase $34.00 worth of groceries. She tries the card again with the same result, "DECLINED," and this time she says it loudly enough for everyone in line to hear it. Of course I am mortified. She asks me if I have another card to try, as if I carry a whole wallet full of cards for this very purpose. I'm in my running clothes and I want to shout that, of course, I don't have any other cards with me....I'm, in fact, traveling light. For a brief moment I consider asking the manager if I can take my groceries home and come back with an old fashioned check but as the manager comes over, I realize that there is no way in this modern credit abusing age that he is going to let me take home $34 worth of groceries on my good name alone--and I'm sure my sweaty running clothes didn't help my image. I ask the manager to please hold my purchases and I will come back with a check. He looks at me completely annoyed and I can see he does not believe me and curses me silently for all the hassle I am causing. I limp out of the store and head home, empty handed.
As soon as I got into the door of my apartment I got on the phone to my credit card company and for once I only had to be on hold for 6 minutes instead of the 22 minutes I had to be on hold last week when I changed my address. The operator started asking me all sorts of security questions about my account and that really surprised me. Why should my credit card company care about my tiny purchases over the last few days? I soon found out. Apparently because I hardly EVER use my credit card, when the credit card company noticed my purchases, they put a hold on my account because they suspected someone had stolen my card. Apparently, if your credit card practices are such that you are frugal and responsible and do not normally USE your credit card, you will not be ABLE to use your credit card until the company verifies that you have simply changed your routine and your card is NOT the victim of theft or fraud. The credit card operator called it, "Monitoring your account, for your protection." I asked her if she realized the humiliation her company had caused me when I was unable to use my credit card. She said, "Oh don't worry, when you go back to the store, your card will work because we re-activated it. The store will understand because it happens all the time." I wanted to yell back, it does not happen to me all the time.
So, to make a really long story a little shorter, I hiked back to the store, stood in line to wait for the manager and he had to ring up my selections all over again. He grumbled the whole time and he even said, "Well, you took so long to come back that I didn't think you were coming at all." I reminded him that I had to walk each way and apologized for my inconvenience. He certainly did not have that understanding attitude that the credit card operator promised. I resubmitted my credit card and this time it worked. I packed up my now even more precious groceries and walked home.
So, be sure you have a back up credit card, or maybe even call your credit card company in advance and notify them when you intend to change your credit card habits; or you might find yourself on your long-awaited exotic vacation in Jamaica with a credit card on HOLD. Welcome to life in the foreign service and learning new life lessons all the time.